CONSHOHOCKEN — For filmmaker Aaron Scotti, the time and energy he devoted to producing “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” which stars a young man with Down syndrome, set him on a life-changing journey in his career.
Even now, with the “sweaty, swampy” days of filming the tender and eccentric indie “buddy” movie in Savannah well behind him, the journey continues for Scotti, bringing the 2001 Plymouth Whitemarsh High School graduate back to his hometown of Conshohocken to help fuel the already strong buzz for the film during its Philadelphia premier.
On Tuesday, Aug. 20, he’ll appear on the popular Preston & Steve Show on WMMR 93.3, and that night he’ll engage in a Q&A session during a screening of the movie at the Landmark Ritz Five on Walnut Street in Philadelphia.
“Conshy is in my blood and I always love coming home, staying in the house where I grew up,” said the former player for the Conshohocken Bears football team who now lives in Los Angeles, where he moved in 2009 to pursue a career in acting. “Anytime the Eagles come to Los Angles to play the Rams, Chris Lemole (a Philadelphia native and Scotti’s partner in Armory Films, which produced ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’), and I are there and it feels like a home game to us.”
Although his original goal was to pursue an acting career, it seemed as if fate has had other ideas, crossing Scotti’s professional path with that of Lemole and Tim Zajaros, founders of Armory Films, a film finance and production behind Dee Rees' acclaimed “Mudbound,” which has earned enormous critical success since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last year, receiving four Academy Award Nominations. Also on Armory’s slate is Joe Penna's “Arctic,” starring Mads Mikkelsen, which Scotti earned a co-production credit on.
“The climate kind of changed here in L.A. as an actor; it got a little more challenging, so moving to L.A. doesn’t have the advantages it used to as an actor,” said Scotti, who had moved to New York in 2006 to study acting at The New York Conservatory For Dramatic Arts.
“Acting and producing are both great in different ways. As an actor you’re building a character and understanding relationships and human behavior; you need a lot of curiosity as an actor and that’s your job. You don’t touch the camera or try to solve problems. I learned very quickly to stay in your lane as an actor,” Scotti added. "Being a producer is the opposite. What a producer does is literally everything under the sun.”
The press release for "The Peanut Butter Falcon," which is distributed by Roadside Attractions, describes the film as a classic adventure tale worthy of Mark Twain, as a down-on-his-luck fisherman and a young man bent on achieving an impossible dream make their way down the waterways of a mythical American South with the help of a succession of colorful strangers. It all begins when 22-year-old Zak (played by Zack Gottsagen, 34), a man with Down syndrome is inspired by an old VHS tape about a famous wrestler and runs away from the nursing home where he lives to chase a dream of becoming a professional wrestler while attending the wrestling school of The Salt Water Redneck. Through a curious set of circumstances, Tyler (played by Shia LaBeouf), a small time outlaw on the run becomes Zak's unlikely coach and ally. Together the pair eludes capture, while drinking whiskey, finding God, catching fish, and convincing Eleanor (played by Dakota Johnson), an empathetic nursing home employee to join them on their journey.
“ ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ was a little risky because nobody has ever financed a movie and put that kind of money behind someone with Down syndrome in the lead role. Hollywood is not looking for that. But the movie has so much passion, and once you meet Zack he’s so charismatic and charming, he’s the definition of unconditional love and you just feel something in your gut,” Scotti said.
“Shia came on board and had the same reaction. There was a proof of concept, which is like a five-minute mini movie that they shot on their own, with the directors and Zack …so between that and the script and meeting Zack, it was over: we have to do this. Chris and Tim decided they were going to take the risk, Chris called me and said we were doing it. I thought thank God because it’s such a beautiful story.”
Filming in Savannah presented a host of challenges, Scotti recalled.
“It was a very challenging shoot, because we were outdoors and it was nasty, sweaty, swampy, and whoever was looking at the budget would be saying ‘that’s expensive, that’s expensive, that’s expensive’… but we found ways to do it. We all found some middle ground and found a great story that everybody was happy with at the end of the day.”
Scotti remembered falling in love with the story by writers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz when it was first presented to him.
“I remember when we were in Iceland Chris was telling me about this really cool script called ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ and he told me what it was about but said he wasn’t sure whether the title was going to stick or not, and I said I hope it does, it’s such a great title. Luckily it ended up sticking because I feel that with everybody who hears the title it piques their interest. It’s a very interesting story with so much heart, and they’ve been trying to get this movie made for four or five years. This town doesn’t like to take risks and at Armory Films we do like to take risks, calculated risks, and we try to do something a little outside of the box that has a little edge to it but has an appeal to an audience.”
Nilson and Schwartz, who also directed the movie, were inspired to write the script by Gottsagen himself, Scotti noted.
“They were at a camp for people with Down syndrome, I believe, and they met Zack and formed this bond with him. And at one point Zack said he wanted to be a movie star. As much as they loved him they didn’t want to lie to him, and they said ‘you’re very talented but Hollywood is not really looking for someone with Down syndrome. Maybe you can get a little bit part here and there. But it’s unlikely they’ll make you a movie star. But it doesn’t mean you can’t try.’ And Zack said, ‘Why don’t you guys make me a movie?’ Tyler and Mike looked at each other, couldn’t think of any reason not to and said ‘let’ do it.’ And Mike and Tyler went to work, doing all the research and they put together the perfect concept and shot it with no money, through the kindness of friends, and four or five years later it landed in Armory’s lap.”
The directors’ decision to use Gottsagen, who one reviewer referred to as having “natural comedic talent,” in the role of Zak instead of auditioning a well-known “name” supplied the essential heart of the movie that actually brought the entire cast and crew together, Scotti said.
“A lot of times (in making a movie) people say it was a great experience and we built a family, and then the movie comes out and you lose touch. But with this I really think we did create a family and it was all because of Zack. Only Zack could bring this unique, different group of people together, day after day, on weekends … the crew and the cast, we all got along so well, better than any movie I’ve ever been a part of. And it was just because of Zack … he brought everybody together and everybody wanted the best for him. And it just reminded you what it was to be a human being and to look out for each other. A lot of actors do what is contractually obligated, but Zack makes you want to go above and beyond. Wherever Zack goes I want to be. If he’s going to do a radio show, I’ll do it. This kid with Down syndrome is running around with movie stars and that’s never happened before. But at the same time, Zack changed our lives. I think that’s something really special, something you don’t see every day. Hopefully, due to this film, we open people’s hearts and we start to see that more and more.”
Scotti recently wrapped up his next project as executive producer, “El Tonto,” written and directed by and starring Charlie Day of “Always Sunny in Philadelphia” fame.
Produced by Armory Films and Wrigley Pictures, the movie features such stars as Ray Liotta, Kate Beckinsale, Jason Sudeikis, Adrien Brody and John Malkovich.
“With the success of ‘Mudbound’ the industry really started to take a look and said, ‘they’re making good quality films.’ We’re very hands on, on the set, on the ground,” Scotti said. “There’s no genre we stick to; whatever pops up and is interesting and has heart, like ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon.’ we want to do. We just said let’s roll the dice’ on that, and thank God we did.”
In addition to the Landmark Ritz 5 screening, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” will be shown at Regal Oaks; Regal Warrington; AMC Neshaminy; AMC Voorhees, N.J. and AMC Hamilton, N.J.
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